What is a Motet

What is a Motet?

In this new, two-minute read about our work, Artistic Director and Conductor Richard Allen Roe
answers the question, “What is a motet?”

A “Motet” is a music genre, like “quartet” or “symphony,” which is based on a religious (in the Western tradition: Christian) text. Think of the French word for “word,” which is “mot.” Mot-et.

So, a word-based piece of music, one could say, with a religious text. Must be sung…

When talking about the ancient music of the Renaissance, it generally referred to music that was sung in church services, but wasn’t part of the Mass Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei). And since it was a setting of a religious text, it would not be confused with later musical developments that were more secular in nature, such as madrigals, or operas.

What about in Bach’s time? Well, Bach did compose a small number of motets, very small in number compared to his cantatas, about ten shorter pieces altogether. Scholars once thought that the Bach motets were commissioned by prominent Leipzig families to be performed at funerals for a deceased loved one. The view on this is changing, as more documentation from actual funerals in the period of 1720 – 50 in Leipzig is being discovered.

One of Bach’s motets, “Jesu, meine Freude,” BWV 227, illustrates this development in scholarship. Recently discovered texts from the “bulletin” of the funeral long held to be the commission and provenance of the work, fail to mention the piece entirely. Even the listed pieces, which were sung by the congregation don’t include the chorale from which the motet gets its name. It’s doubtful that a work as substantial as “Jesu, meine Freude” could have been commissioned for this funeral, given its absence from the evidentiary materials related to the actual funeral. So, how did we get this, or any motet, from the pen of Johann Sebastian Bach?

One possible answer lies in the long-standing tradition of Leipzig’s Thomaner (the famous boys choir from St. Thomas School and Church, where Bach was Cantor) to use the Bach cantatas as training pieces. When Mozart visited the St. Thomas School in 1789, he heard the Bach motet “Singet dem Herrn, ein neues Lied,” BWV 225. Of course, he was enthralled by this music, and enthusiastically copied the parts for his own collection.

When American musicologist and Bach scholar Daniel Melamed visited the Thomas-Schule nearly three centuries later, he encountered the motets in a rather workaday fashion. He writes, “on a small table at the front of the room sat neat piles of the scores of Bach’s motets, stacked like some kind of bar graph of the choir’s work. It seemed particularly fitting that these compositions, which have apparently never left the repertory of the Thomanerchor since their composer’s tenure as its director, should be symbolically displayed as the heart of the choir’s repertory even today.” (Daniel Melamed, J. S. Bach and the German Motet, Cambridge University Press, 1995)

One wonders if Mozart saw such a stack of motets, when he entered the rehearsal space on his visit? Doubtful, but not impossible. If so, the stacks would not have been scores, like we have nowadays, but rather piles of individual voice parts, handwritten by Thomaner students, into the soprano, alto, tenor, bass parts. Vocal music during the era of Bach or Mozart was not often published nor printed, and when it was, it was printed as individual voice parts, rather than the collective scores modern choirs enjoy. This would have made for some pretty high stacks, and considerable effort would have been required to make a neat impression. It is thought that Mozart heard Bach’s motet “Singet den Herrn,” BWV 225 on that trip in 1789. That work is for double choir, so there would have been eight individual parts to be collected and placed into the modern format. Just that motet alone would have created quite a “stack,” if that were to be the case.

Want more to read about Bach’s motets?

German Motet

J.S. Bach and the German Motet,
by Daniel Melamed
Published by Cambridge University Press
Available in paperback on Amazon
or at your local bookseller